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Fathers and families: forging ties that bind.

New programs are teaching young unwed fathers how to take legal, financial, and emotional responsibilites for their children.

KEVIN HILL'S 1985 sedan is falling apart, door handles held together with tape, springs pushing through torn upholstery. It's a far cry from the red and white Stingray Corvette he tooled around in when he was dealing drugs at age 13, but Hill [not his real name] slides into the driver's seat with a show of pride. It is not the best car he has owned, but it's the first one he ever bought with money earned legally. Having worked two jobs to scrape together the down payment, Hill sees the car as a sign that he finally is turning his life around.

Now 21, Hill has a past of drugs, gangs, and jail. For the first time, he can imagine a different future. "I always dreamt about making it, having a family, going to school, and right now it's finally starting to come together. "

An unmarried father, Hill has a two-year-old daughter whom he makes a point of seeing every day. An 11th-grade dropout, he recently earned a General Equivalency Diploma (GED), enrolled in a community college, and began working as a technician at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

Hill measures his accomplishments against grim statistics. Scores of his former buddies have met violent deaths. Two of his older brothers were killed in gang wars and one is in jail for shooting a policeman. Two sisters had babies before they were 14. "Out of 15 kids, I'm the only one in my family to get a high school degree and the first one to go to college. When I found out I passed the GED test, I started crying, and when I told my mom she cried with me. She said, |I know you can do it. I know you're going to make it.'"

Hill gives credit for his new direction to the Responsive Fathers Program at the Philadelphia Children's Network. One of a growing number across the country that offer counseling and job-seeking assistance to young unwed fathers, the program provides intensive individual guidance to some 45 participants ranging in age from 16 to 26. It is one of six sites--the others are Cleveland, Ohio; Fresno, Calif.; Racine, Wis.; St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Annapolis, Md.--participating in a national demonstration project sponsored by Public/ Private Ventures (P/PV), a nonprofit public policy organization that designs and evaluates programs for disadvantaged youth.

Partially funded by the Ford Foundation with grants totaling $588,500, the project's goal is to determine the most effective ways to help young unwed fathers take legal, financial, and emotional responsibility for their children. It is part of a broader Ford Foundation effort to support research and pilot projects that explore ways to improve the employment opportunities of unwed mothers and fathers of children on welfare.

The soaring rate of out-of-wedlock births has brought a corresponding rise in the number of poor single-parent families dependent on welfare. According to Federal data, 26% of all babies in the U.S. are born to an unwed mother, four times the rate of a generation ago. Nearly half of all families headed by single mothers live in poverty. Studies show that never-married mothers are far more likely than divorced ones to become chronically dependent on welfare, in part because they receive so little child support. Just 24% of never-married single mothers nationwide had court orders for child-support payments from fathers in 1989, compared to 72% of divorced or separated mothers.

Most efforts to address this situation have focused on helping unwed mothers move from welfare to work and getting absent fathers to pay child support. However, in cases where the fathers are inner-city young men with a poor education, spotty work experience, and few job prospects, child-support enforcement is difficult. Programs like the one at P/PV are testing new ways to help these men meet their support obligations. The P/PV project specifically has targeted younger unwed fathers. "We want to build on the pride they feel when their baby has just been born," explains Nigel Vann, a P/PV program officer. "That's the moment when these guys are most involved with their kids and most likely to want to talk about fatherhood issues. It's harder to re-engage fathers once their children are older."

Research findings are challenging the stereotype of young unwed fathers as irresponsible "baby-making machines" who refuse to help care for their kids. In fact, many want to be good parents, but face daunting obstacles.

Needed skills

As Bernardine Watson, P/PV vice president and director of field operations, indicates, "Most of the men we're working with are not disconnected from their children. They'll buy them clothes and food, take them to the doctor, contribute money when they can. Their problem is that they are very poorly equipped for the labor market."

Although teenage mothers long have had access to social-assistance programs, little effort has been made to help unwed fathers get the education, training, and jobs they need if they are to become steady providers. "We have to be advocates for these young men because the system is not geared to helping them be successful," notes Thomas J. Henry, director of the Philadelphia project. Inflexible child-support laws and a cumbersome, often unfriendly government bureaucracy can discourage unmarried fathers from taking legal responsibility for their offspring.

"If a young man formally acknowledges paternity or is named the father by the child's mother, he is expected to start making child-support payments immediately. But in many cases these young men lack the skills to command more than the minimum wage and have only sporadic employment."

Many experts agree that the short-term training programs available to some unwed fathers offer quick-fix solutions that do not prepare them to become self-sufficient. If they take the two to three years needed to learn new skills, they fall behind in support payments and could end up owing the state tens of thousands of dollars or face jail for nonpayment. As a result, some men who do acknowledge paternity take dead-end jobs just to keep up with their payments. Many others try to avoid getting caught in the system altogether.

At the Responsive Fathers Program, Tom Henry and case manager Greg Patton put in long days trying to make that system more sensitive to the difficulties faced by unwed fathers. "We're trying to motivate these young men to change their lives and become responsible parents, but the systems we're dealing with seem designed to alienate them," Patton maintains.

Appearing in family court can be a frustrating and sometimes humiliating experience, particularly for fathers of children on welfare. They often are made to wait for hours and then grilled in front of others about their private lives. Although couples who can afford a lawyer are likely to get a customized child-support agreement, poor unwed fathers can be ordered to pay an amount that does not take into account their fluctuating employment history. Without an attorney to explain how they can file for a reduction of payments if they lose their job or inform them of their visitation rights, many end up feeling overwhelmed and powerless to get ahead.

Henry and Patton have met with family court officers to explore ways to improve procedures, but helping unwed fathers get fair treatment in the child-support system is only part of the program. Before they can become good fathers, these young men--most of whom received little or no fathering themselves--need guidance in dealing with feelings of anger, confusion, and low self-esteem. "Our biggest challenge is to make them aware of their responsibilities, to show them how to negotiate the system and not to quit when they feel frustrated," Henry explains.

Most participants join in the hope of getting a job or vocational training, but Henry has had a hard time persuading training and employment programs to give these men a chance. Many are high school dropouts with no steady work experience. Some have arrest records or a past of drug dealing and substance abuse. Most come from single-parent homes and have received little encouragement to break the cycle of fatherless families and welfare dependency.

So far, with the project's help, six participants have earned or are working on a GED, nine are attending community college, and 19 have found jobs. Henry is trying to get several into programs that would train them to be electricians, barbers, printers, and radiology technicians.

Several of the other sites participating in the project have had more success linking young men to training and employment, mainly because of closer ties to other service providers and access to Federal funds for job training and placement. In Fresno, Cleveland, and Racine, participants are expected to attend four to eight weeks of intensive daily classes to prepare them generally for employment, followed by skills training and job placement. Established in 1990, the Philadelphia Children's Network is a newer organization and it still is building its links to local employers. It also is working with the city's Private Industry Council, a Federally funded agency that provides job training mostly to single mothers on welfare, to design similar programs for unemployed young men.

A changed life

The Philadelphia program is having a profound effect on the lives of some participants. Kevin Hill learned about the program from a flyer left on his car window. He admits he was skeptical, even combative, when he went to check it out. His past experience had made him wary of "anything that sounded positive." His earliest memories are of working in the tobacco and corn fields of North Carolina with his sharecropper grandparents. When he was seven, his mother moved the family to an inner-city neighborhood of West Philadelphia, where she struggled to support her children with low-paying factory jobs. He barely knew his father. "My father is the only person I hate," Hill says. "He would come around just long enough to get my mother pregnant and then disappear."

Despite his mother's best efforts, Hill got caught up in the street culture of violence and fast money. "I did what I had to do to survive. When you live in the ghetto, there's no one to lean on but other ghetto people, and all they've got is drugs and guns." The men he looked up to were the ones with "the big cars, the women, money, and jewelry."

Hill seemed destined to follow in their footsteps. At the age of 11, he shot a teenager in the chest for hitting his sister. At 12, he joined a gang and began stealing cars. By 13, he was selling and snorting cocaine, earning up to 1,000 a day. That is when his mother put him out of the house and Hill got an apartment with a friend.

Between 14 and 18, he was in and out of detention centers. "When I was dealing drugs, I used to try to give my mother money, but she always refused to take it because she knew it was wrong. It's because of her that I got stronger. When I got out of jail this last time and found Tom Henry, I said for once I'm going to make it right, make her proud of me."

Henry was unlike any male adult Hill ever had known. "When I met Tom, I thought, this guy ain't real. I'd never seen any guy like him--don't get high, all clean in a suit and stuff, telling me I can do this and I can be that. "

Hill now has a goal--to become a registered nurse, a dream he nurtured secretly for years. Even when he was running with gangs and dealing drugs, Hill would sneak off to watch the daytime soap opera "General Hospital" because one of the characters was a male nurse. When he confided this ambition to Henry, Hill was encouraged to go to college to make his dream come true. Hill recalls feeling he would never be able to get that far.

As he does with all the young men in the program, Henry encouraged, prodded, pestered, got tough, and paved the way for Hill to take the necessary steps. Although he spent two months studying for the GED exam, Hill froze when he sat down to take it. He was given another appointment, but never showed up. Henry scheduled a third try, and this time Hill took the test and passed, scoring so well in placement exams for community college that he was put in an accelerated mathematics class. "I never had no one in my corner until I met Tom," Hill indicates. "People would tell me I could do things, but they were always the wrong things."

The support Henry and Patton provide has no office hours. Patton wears a beeper so the young men can reach him at any time. He has gotten calls in the middle of the night, once to help a group member see his newborn son at the hospital (his girlfriend's mother was trying to keep him away), another time to bring a participant carfare to go to work the next day, in other instances to assist in sorting out personal problems or mediate in disputes with girlfriends. Henry has driven to the men's homes in the morning to make sure they go to job interviews, take their GED exams, or just get to work on time.

"If you're not willing to commit fully to these young men, then you should not be involved in a program like this, " maintains Henry, who believes it will take two to three years to get the young fathers on the right track so they can take care of their families. Adds Patton: "Every program they've ever seen looks good on paper but doesn't follow through. This is the first time they have people who are really there for them. When they're wrong, we tell them, and when they're right, we back them 100%.

Although this kind of mentoring is bringing good results, the staff is careful not to claim success too soon. Henry and Patton are powerful role models, but they feel locked in a constant struggle with competing influences. "We're dealing with these young men once a week, and then they have all the other days to fall back into the negative things that are in their community and reinforced by their peers," Henry notes. "I might tell a young man to stop selling drugs and promise to get him a job, but then if three weeks go by and I can't deliver on that promise, he still needs money to live. So he says, "I tried your way and it didn't work, so what are you talking about?'"

Married to his high school sweetheart for 27 years and the father of two grown children, Henry has been active in community youth projects for more than two decades. Both he and Patton know what it is like to be a teenage father unprepared for the pressures of parenthood. "In each of the young men I see a little bit of myself," says Patton, who still remembers the terror he felt at 15 when his girlfiend got pregnant. Henry and his future wife were 18 when she had their first child. "I didn't know how to deal with it, so I went into the military to get away. "

Their own experiences help them connect with the pain and frustration vented by the young men in weekly discussion groups. For many participants, these sessions are the best part of the program. Held at the downtown office of the Philadelphia Children's Network, the Tuesday night meetings deal with male-female relationships, child rearing, decision-making, racism, how to control anger, and what it means to take responsibility for your life. For inner-city youths accustomed to showing the world a "cool" facade, having a place where they can let down their emotional guard is liberating.

Rick Shaw, 26, has five children, whose ages range from three months to five years. His oldest lives with her mother, Shaw's former girlfriend. He plans to marry the mother of his youngest four. He heard about the group from friends who felt it was helping them change their lives. "I thought it was a lot of bull," he recalls, but he finally decided to check out an evening session. "Everything they were talking about was something I could relate to. Then I started talking, letting out things that I had always wanted to talk about but could never express before. When I left I was smiling." The young men use the group meetings to grapple with basic issues of identity. One 22-year-old with a troubled past feels the sessions are changing his self-image. "With this program, I've learned so much about being a man because I was no man before, even though I thought I was. I might have been earning a lot of money, but I was dumb to life. Now I'm finally beginning to set a good example for my son."

Shaw feels he's on the right road. A high school graduate who works sporadically in construction, he had been unemployed for eight months when he entered the program. "Being out of work was getting to me. My kids needed Pampers and stuff and I wasn't able to give it to them." With help from Henry, Shaw applied to enter a training program in building maintenance and hopes eventually to become a carpenter. Meanwhile, once a week he makes the round of downtown companies to fill out job applications. "I've been to the bottom and I knew I was going to do what was necessary to get out. This program is part of that. It teaches you to respect yourself and others, how to get a job and take care of your family."

Shaw already can see improvements in his home life. "My girlfriend and I used to fight a lot and sometimes it would get out of hand. But Tom [Henry] is teaching me how to control my anger. I still have a way to go, but I try to talk things out now. My girl says she really sees a change in me."

Domestic tensions have been eased by changes in Shaw's lifestyle. Before entering the program, most of his days and evenings were spent hanging out with his friends and playing basketball. "I used to think I didn't have to tell my girlfriend where I was going or when I'd be back. If I was out with my friends and I'd say I'm going home to my girl now, they'd say, |Already? Who runs the show, you or your girl?,' so I'd stay out longer. Now, when I tell her I'm coming back at nine o'clock, I'm home by nine o'clock."

Shaw also spends more time with his children, playing with them at home, taking them on outings to the mall and the movies. "I want to live as a family and that's starting to happen. " His only regret is that he didn't have all his children with the same mother, because he doesn't get to see his oldest daughter as often as he would like. "She's my heart," he says. "But every time I go over to visit, her mom will start an argument. "

Changing the image

Many of the men feel held back by negative stereotypes of inner-city black youth. Henry challenges them to take positive steps to alter that image. "You have the power to make people respect you," he tells the young men, "and the only way to do that is to stop messing around and start growing. "

For Hill, that process already has begun. At least three times a week, he picks up his daughter at day care after work, helps feed and put her to bed, then goes to study in the library until eight p.m., when his classes begin at community college. No longer living with his child's mother, Hill maintains that he has learned not to let the strains between them interfere with his relationship with his daughter. "My main thing is I got to take care of my little girl. That's something decent, something special in my life."

Henry would like to expand the program to include the mothers of the children. "If we're ever going to put the family back together, we've got to look at this holistically. It's not enough to work just with the father because when he starts to grow, his partner can feel threatened. We've got to help the young women grow at the same time."

P/PV has extended the initial 18-month term of the project for another year and is analyzing the experience of all six sites to determine what changes in policies covering child support and employment training would enable these fathers to pursue the education and job opportunities they need to become good providers. It also will examine the long-term benefits of the intensive individual support they receive and try to track what happens once they leave the program. "We're seeing that many of the young men really do need a lot more support than is available in traditional programs," says P/PV's Bernardine Watson. "It's important to have a dedicated staff who can relate to them and gain their trust. But the hope is that once they receive a solid preparation they will be able to make good use of what they have learned and become less reliant on the case managers."

Whatever the future brings, Kevin Hill has no doubts about what the program has meant to him. "If I hadn't started coming here, I'd be dead or in jail by now. When I entered the program, I was uneducated, I was a criminal; I had no job, no money. I had a family, but it wasn't really a family. Now I got a job, I'm going to college, and I have a family so strong nobody's going to break it up. "
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Lurie, Theodora
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:May 1, 1993
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